Friday, May 11, 2007
Veteran back line to be reunited against Canada
Saturday's friendly between the United States and Canada at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas offers a chance for familiar faces to reunite for the first time in months.
Sure, that includes the two regional rivals, for whom familiarity always breeds an unsteady mix of both contempt and respect. When the United States and Canada played last November in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, it marked the third meeting of the year between the two sides. And while Canada's goal in an eventual 2-1 overtime loss marked the first time it had scored against the Americans since 2003, the games have generally been competitive and contentious. But perhaps more importantly, considering the inherently low stakes of an exhibition game played four months before both teams travel to China for the World Cup, Saturday's game also marks an internal reunion for the back line of coach Greg Ryan's United States national team. For the first time since the Gold Cup tilt against Canada, Ryan has the option of starting veterans Heather Mitts, Kate Markgraf, Christie Rampone and Cat Whitehill together in defense. Due to a variety of circumstances, four players who have combined for 494 international appearances have rarely been together on the field in recent years. Rampone, along with veteran strikers Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, was excused from duty in the Four Nations Cup in China in January in order to rest up for the arduous buildup of a World Cup year and to give a young roster valuable competitive experience. Markgraf, still rounding into shape after giving birth to her first child last year, captained the team in China but didn't play in either the Algarve Cup in March or the team's recent friendly against Mexico after sustaining minor injuries at the Four Nations. Only Mitts, who played more minutes than anyone but Wambach and Lilly last year and is third in minutes behind Whitehill and Lori Chalupny this year, has been a constant presence. In fact, adding in the games Whitehill missed last summer after aggravating a plantar fascia injury in her foot, the Gold Cup final against Canada marked the only time since Ryan took over in 2005 that the four players who might fairly be called the favorites to start in China this fall started as an intact quartet. For a team that seems to have regained some measure of status as a soccer monolith, rolling along with nary a loss during Ryan's tenure, that's a remarkable measure of instability. Not that those fluid lineups have resulted in many leaks. The United States has allowed a total of only four goals in eight games this year, after allowing 10 goals in 22 games last year. Only Sweden, on two different occasions, has scored more than one goal in a game against the defense put together by Ryan and drilled by assistant coach Brett Hall, both former defenders in the NASL in their playing days. But with Ryan committed in recent months to at least experimenting with more offensive-minded formations, part of which was the inspiration for moving frequent back-line starter Chalupny back to her college position in midfield, cohesion in the back will be vital to maintaining such stingy defensive production. Rampone, who has displayed plenty of versatility in bouncing between outside back and center back through the various lineup permutations, should get a chance to settle outside with Markgraf and Whitehill paired together in the middle. And the next few months will be pivotal for Markgraf in regaining top form after she played just 596 minutes since the start of last year (she's unlikely to go the full 90 minutes on Saturday, even with forecasts calling for relatively mild temperatures in the high 70s). The wild card remains Stephanie Lopez, who has quickly become a regular on the roster since making her international debut at last year's Algarve Cup. Still possessing a year of eligibility at the University of Portland, Lopez has gone from merely a World Cup hopeful to a potential starter and an almost certain contributor. Her recent stints in midfield, in particular as a starter against Mexico on April 14, have been fitful and her home is still as an offensive-minded outside back, but the versatility she showed in moving forward only improves her odds of making the final roster. Saturday's game also marks the return of Natasha Kai after the talented but enigmatic Hawaiian youngster was left off the roster for the Mexico game, for what Ryan described as fitness concerns. That Kai is already back on the roster suggests the move was intended as a shot across the bow for a player who took the team by storm with her goal-scoring exploits last year, and that she's still likely to make the cut for China. The only surprising faces on Ryan's roster are goalie Nicole Barnhart, taking the spot usually occupied by Brianna Scurry, and defender Marian Dalmy, who returns after earning her first cap in the game against Mexico. Canada has been in action more recently than the United States, returning just last week from a two-game series in China against the host nation of this fall's World Cup. Coach Evan Pellerud's team lost the opening game 3-1 on May 3 and then dropped the second game 2-1 on May 6, despite outshooting China 24-8 in the latter contest. The losses were the first for Canada against a team other than the United States since losing 4-3 to Germany on Sept. 1, 2005. The games in Hangzhou were the first official international games for Canada since the Gold Cup. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.